Good bye (and good riddance) to Human Terrain System

Both Counterpunch and Inside Higher Ed ran stories recently on the end of Human Terrain System or HTS. What was HTS? A program run by the army and employing social scientists, including some anthropologists, to help them learn more about the people (i.e. ‘human terrain’) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Booted up in 2005, the controversial program attracted massive criticism from anthropologists, including a report from the AAA and a formal statement arguing that it was fundamentally unethical. Now, a decade after the idea for embedded social scientists in American’s invasions was first floated, the program has officially folded.

There were many problems with HTS. Not only was it unethical, the quality of work it produced was, iirc, pretty lousy. Moreover, it actively supported American military action which was not only morally wrong, but a tremendous strategic error with an enormous price tag in dollars and lives. According to Counterpunch, HTS’s slice of the pie was US$725 million dollars. It’s hard to see HTS as anything except an object lesson in ethical and scientific failure. It didn’t even engage interesting ethical questions about collaboration with the military, applied anthropology, and ethics. It was just fail. Anthropologists everywhere can be glad it has now been relegated to ethics section of anthropology syllabi.

Perhaps one good thing that has come out of HTS is that the AAA managed to show strong ethical leadership throughout this period. This is in stark contrast to the American Psychological Association, which colluded with the CIA to produce ethical standards that made facilitating torture acceptable to its members. To be honest, I’m not really sure this indicates the strong moral fiber of the AAA so much as its lack of relevance to American actions abroad, at least until a network of concerned anthropologists pushed it to act (or, perhaps, to act in and through it).

At the end of the day, anthropology took a stance against HTS, and history has born this stance out. Goodbye and good riddance to HTS.



Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

14 thoughts on “Good bye (and good riddance) to Human Terrain System

  1. Just playing Devil’s advocate here: but is a legitimate anthropology embedded in the U.S. military possible? Like, what if HTS was interesting, and well managed, and grappled honestly with the kinds of ethical debates anthropologists care about? What if intelligent well trained people went to work for the Army, did good work and really did help them understand others in out of the way places?

    Would we be okay with that, or is the military just a deal breaker?

    I am not saying that anthropologists’ primary objection with HTS is that it is part of the military and is thus always symbolically contaminated. But obviously, that’s a part of it just like applied anthropology is (for some) a second class citizen compared to scholarly works.

    In another world would it possible to make this work? If so, how?

  2. One plausible example of an anthropologist who seems to do what HTS was intended to do pretty well is someone I have mentioned before, David Kilcullen, the author of Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, which I consider personally one of the most important books that I have read in recent years. The problem is that Kilcullen is a rare bird indeed, an anthropologist with a Ph.D. from, I recall [I could be mistaken], Australian National University, who is also a professional soldier. He is thus equipped to relate anthropological insight to military operations in a way that few, if any, other anthropologists are. The story he relates at the start of the book is a good example.

    He is with a convoy returning from a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a regional slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant at the head of a valley in Afghanistan. The convoy comes under attack, a firefight ensues, but the attackers are quickly beaten off with little actual harm done on either side. There are those who instantly wonder what was going on. Have the Taliban returned to an area from which they were supposed to be driven away? Kilcullen suggests a plausible alternative scenario. The valley at the head of which the new facility was located is, like many parts of Afghanistan, controlled by multiple small warlords. The attack on the convoy was a way of expressing displeasure by the warlord who controlled the part of the valley where the attack took place at not having been consulted about where the new slaughterhouse would be located — in another warlord’s territory. Failure to avenge this insult would have seriously undermined his own authority. Kilcullen is careful to note that this alternative scenario is only hypothetical; but it is one that takes into account local political arrangements of which his on-the-scene colleagues were unaware.

  3. If a social a scientist wants to embed with an inevtiably corrupt governmental organization for rhe purpose of doing good, the obvious choice is the UN.

    Fieldwork with mercs or marines might be interesting but it isn’t “doing good”

  4. Kilcullin is a military strategist, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq. He’s a poster-boy along with Andrew Exum, “Abu Muqawama”, for the new model of competent [sic] imperial management. Their interest is projecting American power. So if you’re interested in asking why we’re in Iraq, or asking why the US vetoed the return of the popular former king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah, in 2002, supporting Karzai and ceding power to various warlords, these are questions neither Kilcullin nor Exum are interested in answering.

    And by the way, how are the wars going? If you’re going to defend the scholarship of vulgar instrumentalism it helps at least to show a record of success.

    In the meantime we have this

  5. What specifically is unethical about providing one’s own military with accurate information about a population? What system of ethics is being used to claim that HTS is unethical? This “unethical” angle and presumed validity of an anti-military perspective seems to have gone unchallenged.

    I see no valid problem with the US military employing social scientists to better prepare themselves for their activities–whether engaging enemies or otherwise.

  6. For alternative perspectives of Human Terrain System (HTS) here are few recent links. These are more substantive and two of which are by former HTS employees.

    While the HTS program is currently mothballed, all the information, curriculum, and lessons learned still exist and can be utilized to create deployable teams in the future. The utilization of social science to assist the military in better understand the social and cultural environment of an area or region will always exist. The military continues to hire social scientists, mostly as contractors, though some government service (GS), to satisfy this need. These individuals do not necessary travel much to locations due to funding and other bureaucratic and logistical challenges. So the need for social scientists who understand research well and incorporate big data into analysis will definitely have a hiring advantage.

    Social science support for the military is not anthropology, though HTS made the mistake in calling it that early on. It is not even ethnography. See David Edwards, “Counterinsurgency as a Cultural System”, in Small Wars Journal 2010 (27 Dec) for further elaboration. Social scientist who worked for the military were and are typically employed through military intelligence though the work was read and utilized by the State Department, Civil Affairs, and many other government groups/agencies as it was real information from the source “on the ground”.

    The military and other government agencies do not care if anthropology clubs like the AAA denounce the program as unethical because they are not beholden to the AAA or other such clubs. In fact, these type of projects do not even constitute “research” as defined by 32CFR219.

    As for the cost, $725 million over seven years ($103.5m year) is a literal droplet in teh scope of DoD spending. One airplane or helicopter a year is more than this. Though it is hard to grasp the volume of money the U.S. Govt spends at times.

    True metrics of the programs success and failures of HTS were documented. Yes, there were failures. Some teams imploded and were poor functioning. Overall though HTS had a lot of teams were worked hard and produced great work for the commanders they were supporting. I know this because HTS regularly did survey to each unit we support to provide feedback directly from the units we supported. The vast majority, i.e., over 90+% of commanders valued the work HTS teams produced. Metrics and direct feedback from commanders was regularly provided to the Pentagon and the Senate House Armed Services Committee which provided the funds for the program. It is because hard work that teams continued to expand and be funded. It is not because of permission from the AAA.

    Christopher King, Ph.D.
    Former Social Science Director, Human Terrain System

  7. Ryan, your links are not uncommon. The military is still hiring social scientists. These social scientists just are not deploying to conflict zone right now.

  8. It seems a bit presumptuous to label anything affiliated with power structures as unethical. And to say the quality of work of HTS was lousy, well to what do you base the judgement? The organization and its members did plenty of “good” work which you will likely never hear about; just as well since the critics made up their mind long before the program ended.

    As a side note, HTS was not anthropology – while the marketers sold it as that to start, most of those working within knew from the start what they were involved with…read Evan’s piece here:

    Anthropology was just one of many tools in a social scientist’s kit. Ryan’s comment above should be highlighted. In part, I assume, due to the overwhelming criticism of HTS, military organizations have outsourced a much diluted version to contractors. Purely intelligence work if you read the job descriptions. Rest assured, war fighters will not be coming to the AAA anytime soon for their advice. I just wonder how much can be achieved from the sidelines?

    Want to read an honest view of what worked and did not work in the field – see our article here:

  9. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Seth’s characterization of David Kilcullen [not Kilcullin] and Andrew Exum [of whom I have never heard] is valid. Does this mean that there is nothing to be learned from them? Suppose, for example, that we are interested in how propaganda works, a topic with clear relevance to anthropological studies of myth, ritual and social movements. We may abhor the politics of Joseph Goebbels and Frank Luntz, but they are masters of their dark arts and should be on every reading list. In Kilcullen’s case, I know of no other anthropologist who has pointed out the importance of coastal cities of which large parts are ungovernable for lack of infrastructure overwhelmed by mass population growth, key nodes in international networks of finance and trade, and increasingly threatened by flooding due to global warming—and are thus attractive targets as well as fertile ground for terrorist organizations. And his Malinowskian moment, noticing his colleagues from Papua New Guinea with whom he is on maneuvers employing the fish traps that become his model for organizations ranging from criminal gangs to nation states is both lucid and brilliant. In all these cases the bait is the promise of security — for a price, submission and payment of protection money, a.k.a. taxes — and armed violence provides the barbs that prevent the fish from escaping the trap. Oh, yes, these are, indeed, ugly instrumental factors in how the world is organized. It would be so much nicer to focus instead on cultural logics and poetics, become a Daoist hermit or Candide cultivating his garden. But while these are nice hobbies — I enjoy them immensely myself — it hardly seems fair to complain if taxpayers or other patrons refuse to foot the bill.

  10. I often disagree with Seth, but I do like his being here. His rants often contain pointers to authors I have never heard of. Andrew Exum is a case in point. A Google search brought me to his book This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism. I spent much of last night reading it, being constantly reminded of how ending the draft (something I was once very much in favor of) has alienated those of us who have chosen civilian and especially academic career tracks from those who volunteer to serve in the military. Thus, we find it easy to stereotype them as anonymous automatons without conscience or moral sensibility, destructive robots lacking in what we see as humanity. I find this deeply ironical, given the effort and often self-righteous rhetoric we devote to denouncing discrimination based on race, gender, culture or religion. This is doubly ironical since the anthropological canon contains numerous examples, from Africa, North America, the Middle East and elsewhere of peoples proud of warrior traditions. We are, for example, eager to proclaim the League of the Iroquois as a model for the U.S. Constitution, while avoiding mention of the torture of captives and stoic bravery in the face of torture that were integral parts of the same culture. We are familiar with the controversy surrounding the labeling of the Yanomami as “The Fierce People,” seeing this label as an insult, despite the wealth of evidence, both ethnographic and historical, that human beings commonly enjoy violent conflict. And, yes, we do, too — albeit vicariously in games or fiction or contact sports played by other people. If our job is to render people uncomfortable with cultural stereotypes, perhaps we should start with our own. This Man’s Army is an excellent place to begin.

  11. As a card carrying AAA member and a US Army combat officer, I had the distinct displeasure of witnessing this argument from the inside of both camps. Both sides engage in grotesque mockery of the intelligence and sincerity of the other.

    The Anthro club forgets that it does not exist in this society called “humans” that is set apart from the civilization that they inhabit. Nor do they realize that their efforts in acquiring and advancing knowledge and understanding of humanity is, to borrow a business term, intellectual capital of their society and not the reserve of the supranational Anthro Guild (I hope my mocking tone is coming through!). American society, and western civilization, should no less expect to use social science knoweldge and expertise in advancing its policy aims as it expects to use engineering or chemistry. And frankly, we should want it used as it gives tools for more sophisticated and nuanced decision making.

    The military has some perverse notions as well. It understood quickly that it had a deficit in its institutional knowledge it needed to fill with the social sciences. But it, uninformed by academia and under the influence of its bureaucratizing tendencies, gave birth to the curiousity that was the HTT. An aimless organization designed to be a plug-and-play tool for discreet missions. Except nothing about understanding (versus knowing) is plug-and-play. The social scientists should have been used as special staff advisors to the commanders and staffs who could be called upon to weigh in on the entire spectrum of activities to help those men and women understand their environments and reason through impacts of their policy decisions. Instead they were used on silly atmospherics expeditions, which were little more than aimless and unrefined intelligence collections.

    Having worked closely with HTT members as a combat leader (in Iraq), I saw their earnest desire to be useful and their belief that they offered a unique and valuable perspective. I also saw a military organization that hadn’t a clue as to how to use them, seeing them as a tool. Alas, a tool is usually tailored to a specific use; a use they could never quite find (not to mention they designed the tool before finding that use). And so the HTTs labored on…sometimes finding a place to be useful, often not. And the Anthro community relaxed and patted itself on the back for their “ethical win”, completey forgetting that by wittholding their support they all but ensured uninformed decision making that actually impacted human beings alive on earth today. So yeah…….yay!

    The whole thing is a sad spectacle of small minds, on all sides.

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